God of Life 03/11/2018

Sojourn Sermon – March 11th – John 3:1-21

Some of you all may be aware that one of our Mennonite sisters, Greta Linecrantz, is currently in jail in Denver. She is being held in contempt of the court because she has refused to testify in the death penalty case against a man named Robert Ray.

Greta works for a private investigation firm whose work, it is believed, will help uphold Ray’s. As far as I understand it Greta’s firm provided information that helped convict Ray, and after the conviction was reached, Ray was sentenced to death. Ray is appealing the court’s decision, and now Greta is being asked to testify again in order to uphold Ray’s conviction, which would then mean that his sentence would also stand.

Greta has refused to testify because she is, as a Mennonite, fundamentally opposed to taking the lives of others and especially to state sanctioned execution. If you’re interested in learning more about the case, I posted a Denver post article about it on the Sojourn Facebook page. I would definitely encourage you to read it. I would also encourage you to avoid the comments on it. It seems not everyone understands Greta’s belief that she cannot participate in a case the seeks to end Ray’s life.

I bring this up because I think this well-known passage in John, and indeed John’s entire theology, invites us to reflect on the belief that Christian faith is incompatible with the taking of life and state execution. This is something I’ve not noticed in John before, but as I was researching for today, this kept coming up.

In John’s gospel, the concept of life, the idea that animated participation in the created world is that for which all things are made, is a central theme. The word life and related ideas occur fifty-nine times in the Gospel of John. You will notice in John’s Gospel that being in and participating in God’s good creation is an inherent good. This is the whole of the Christian faith, right? To have eternal life, to be continually animated by God’s life giving Spirit.

One of the things I find interesting about theologies of personal salvation is that there seems to be an extreme cognitive dissonance around life as a theological good. Salvation in many circles is being taken away from this life. Christ came, they say in order that we might escape our physical reality.

I want to suggest to you tonight that, in John, we find a much different picture. In John, we don’t find a God who seeks to extract us from a broken and evil world. Instead we find a God who actively wants to engage the world and redeem it. Indeed, we meet a God who wants to dwell, the Greek word for dwell, which we encounter in John 1:14, is actually “to pitch a tent” or “to make a tabernacle,” in and among God’s creation.

The opening words of John speak volumes:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I love this line, “What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Life was a light to all people. When we encounter a text like this, we may be tempted to think of “life” in a way that corresponds to salvation, but according to Marianne Meye Thompson, who wrote an excellent commentary on John for the NT Library Series, life here refers to that which is given to all creation. Life, here, is that animating force that was breathed into Adam in the Garden. Thompson continues and argues, “Created life is a foretaste and anticipation of eternal life; created life truly images and anticipates eternal life because both come from God.”

This kind of life, an animated existence, is what Gods wants for us. To live and to be is to participate in God’s gift of love.

And this theme continues throughout the entire Gospel. It in John that we find Jesus saying things like, “No one knows greater love than this, than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” That in John Chapter 15.

It’s in John that we see the raising of Lazarus in Chapter 11. And it’s true that there are places in other Gospels where Jesus raises people from the dead, in Mark 5, Luke 7 and 8, and Matthew 9. But in these instances there’s some ambiguity. In those cases the people have just died, and there’s some question in the scholarship about whether or not these people were actually dead. Jesus says as much in one instance, he tells a crowd of mourners that the child they mourn isn’t dead but only sleeping.

Lazarus is different. He’s been dead for days. When Jesus approaches the tomb and asks for it to be opened, the people warn him that there will be a foul smell.

And it’s here, in front of the tomb of his dear friend, that Jesus weeps. It’s the shortest verse in the English translations: Jesus wept, John 11:35. Death it seems, is something to weep over. Even for the guy who is about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus weeps at the tomb of his dead friend.

There’s something good about this life. There is something worth saving about this life. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the resurrection, we find Jesus eating with his disciples on the shore of the sea of Galilee. I find this so interesting because Jesus isn’t resurrected to some ethereal plane. The risen body of Jesus is such that it hungers. It still bears the scars of his crucifixion, which we know because he invites Thomas to touch his wounds.

This is what I think Marianne Thompson means when she says that this life is a foretaste of eternal life. God is seeking to inhabit these kinds of spaces with us. God’s saving love isn’t about extraction: it’s about engagement. The word of God took on flesh and dwelled, made a tent or tabernacle, among us, John says in 1:14. In Jesus God is actively engaged in the world.

The other theme we should pick up on in John, apart from the theme of God’s love of life, is that Jesus is the source of life. We encountered this in the text I quoted from earlier in John 1: there John tell us that all things where made through the divine Word, and that nothing that has been made was made apart from this Word.

It’s this divine Word that takes on flesh and dwells among us in the person of Jesus. And this brings us to our text for today. John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse in scripture. Whoever believes in Jesus shall not parish, but have eternal life. Apart from its broader context, however, this verse is kind of meaningless. It can be twisted and manipulated to say whatever we want it to. And it has been twisted and manipulated. This verse has become foundational for a theology of disengagement. It is often cited as a scriptural basis for a theology of personal salvation from a God who seeks to get us out of here.

But as I said earlier, the Christ event is about engagement. It’s about God engaging the world. And here in the first part of Chapter 3 we see that. Notice what Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” We get it all wrong when our trajectory is upward. God’s trajectory is always downward.

To believe in Jesus, I think is to make this process of life giving the central focus of our own life. To believe in Jesus is participate in God’s ongoing project of engagement with the world. This is the of life that is a light to the world.

“God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” The word that’s translated here as “world” is kosmos. It refers to more than just the people of the world, it refers to the entire created order. It’s a large, all-encompassing kind of word. I would argue its referring to the processes of life. God did not send Jesus into the created order to condemn it, but to save it.

But there are those who have condemned themselves, Jesus says. According to the logic I’ve outlined here, they are those who disengage from God’s project of life giving. Those who condemn themselves are those who fail or refuse to see this goodness in others. Those who see others as exploitable or expendable.

This is the judgement, Jesus says, “That the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deed were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

This darkness that Jesus talks about here and that John mentions in the opening of his Gospel can refer to many things. The reign of sin, is an often used example.

For my purposes, here, I think I can make the case that part of this darkness that cloud our world, a significant part, is the belief that we are justified in denying life to other beings.

That is a broad statement, and we can take that statement pretty far. Are there people in the room who want to put limits on that? Are some people wondering if animals and plants, microorganism fit into that? This is part of that darkness, our immediate desire to put a limit on our role in God’s life giving project. I’m not going to side step here into a rant about veganism or vegetarianism. I’m neither, but in all honesty, I don’t have a good theological reason not to be. At least ten times a year I consider cutting meat out of my diet. Megan will back me up on that.

I know bringing animals up now, might seem totally off topic, but I bring this up because I want to highlight something about our world and our culture. In our daily lives we are continually engaged in systems that cause immense suffering and result in extreme violence. From the way we eat to the way we buy our clothes, we are inundated and implicated in almost innumerable atrocities every day. And here’s the thing, I know you already know this. We’ve all heard this before. We’ve become used to the idea that our way of being is harmful to other beings. This is an extremely dangerous way of being in the world. As Ellen Davis, who is one of my all-time favorite scholars, note, “It is only because destructive behaviors are routine for ordinary people like ourselves that the ‘titanic’ acts can be conceived of by relatively few and then rendered plausible and acceptable to so many.”

It makes sense to me that, in a culture where, in our daily life, we engage in such destructive behavior, the state has the authority to execute someone. The anger and vitriol that has been thrown toward Greta is the result of a world and a culture in which violence and destruction is a part of daily life. The darkness that shrouds our world is a constant and continual disengagement from God’s life giving project.

And don’t get me wrong, Robert Ray is accused of terrible things: orchestrating the deaths of three people. Where is the justice for Javad Marshall-Fields, Vivian Wolfe, and Gregory Vann, the skeptic will ask.

My only response is that in order to find real justice for these beloved children of God, whose parents now must bury their babies, is to engage with the world. To ask questions that go beyond who did this and who can we punish, that’s disengagement. To seek real justice for these people is to ask questions about why these kinds of things happen in the first place. What can be done so that no more parents have to bury their children under such circumstances.

This is counter intuitive, and I think there are plenty of people who would call me insensitive. But I can’t get on board with the idea that the state sanctioned killing of Robert Ray is anything that resembles justice, not when God’s message of hope is life-giving engagement with the world.

Greta’s Lenten journey is being spent in a jail cell. Our journey is probably not so arduous. But Greta’s actions invites into a deeper engagement with the season. What are the ways in which our own lives are shrouded in that same darkness Jesus denounced?